With the death of Gore Vidal, America has lost one of its wittiest naysayers. Gore seemed a throwback to the time of the founders. In several of his novels, he showed them as flawed but visionary patricians who could found a nation, engage in politics, write literate prose, and design a Monticello or a Constitution. But then, as always with Vidal, came the kicker: “The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country—and we haven’t seen them since.” He became like Henry Adams, the historian of his country’s declension, in his scrupulously researched “American Chronicle” novels, which were a readable and informative remedy for Americans’ historical illiteracy.
Although Vidal’s own forays into the political arena (running for the House of Representatives from New York and the Senate from California) were unsuccessful, he did surprisingly well, demonstrating at the very least that a candidate can speak honestly to voters. But he played his most useful public role at his writing desk, as a one-man shadow cabinet firing off scolding open letters.
Why did he bother? If we could answer that question, we would have found Rosebud. Certainly he made a lucrative living off his plays, novels and film scripts. In an essay on H.L. Mencken that appeared here, he quotes the Sage of Baltimore’s reply when asked why, if he found so much to criticize about America, he continued to live here: “Why do men go to zoos?” Although more politically engagé than Mencken ever was, the mercurial Vidal sometimes despaired of his slower-witted countrymen: “For several decades I have been trying to convince Europeans that Americans are not innately stupid but merely ignorant and that with a proper educational system, et cetera. But the more one reads Mencken the more one eyes suspiciously the knuckles of his countrymen, looking to see calluses from too constant a contact with the greensward.”
Probably Gore’s willingness to become a public figure had something to do with heredity. Controversy and contrarianism were in his DNA. And nurture played a role as well. He was born to a prominent father—Eugene Vidal, star athlete at West Point, flier and aviation industry pioneer—and a socially connected mother, Nina (whom he detested), who divorced Eugene and married an Auchincloss, later Jackie Kennedy’s stepfather. There was a sense of entitlement, but it was blended with a sense of political service aroused by reading to his blind grandfather, Oklahoma Senator Thomas Gore. One wonders if all those sessions gave him a literal taste for speaking truth to power, up close and personal. Anyhow, he never stopped.
To those of us who knew his works, his person and his generosity, Gore’s philippics against his native land were not the sneers of an Eastern snob; they were the cries of a disappointed lover. His coping strategy was to hector, remonstrate and satirize, in hopes of making the wayward adored one worthy of its heritage.
Gore started life as a cosseted golden boy, but he soon jumped the track. After serving with the Army in World War II, he came home apparently changed, like a lot of young men. His first two novels were followed by his great breakthrough, The City and the Pillar (1948), a realistic treatment of a young man experiencing a homosexual crush on his best boyhood friend (a situation derived from Vidal’s own life). This coming-out novel shocked the fuddy-duddies who dominated book reviewing at the New York Times and kindred establishment organs. Vidal was blackballed by the literary clubmen. Critics to the left charged that he was concentrating on issues of sexuality rather than critiquing American society, while on the right the McCarthyites demonized homosexuals as security risks, drowning out all sane discussion. Perhaps Gore imbibed from the cold war polemicists a distaste for the politicization of private behavior. He was not one to flaunt, so to speak, his identity as a gay man; in fact, he despised all identity politics. He considered himself bisexual and said there were no “homosexuals,” only “homosexual acts,” which were normal and widely engaged in.